I want to take a few moments to talk about the death of Apollo Creed.
Apollo Creed is my favourite character in the Rocky films, by far. He’s the most interesting character in the first movie, he’s one of the more enjoyable aspects of the third movie, and his death in Rocky IV was downright traumatic for this author in his youth. Add to this the fact that he “got out” (i.e. was pummelled to death) after the series had already gone off the rails but safely before the monstrosity sometimes referred to as Rocky V emerged on to screens to scar young minds everywhere, and Apollo ends up being one of the least abused characters in a series that specialized in tearing apart the viewer’s respect for any of its central personalities.
He doesn’t get off scot free, though. Apollo Creed’s behaviour is one of the many things in Rocky IV that doesn’t make sense. That aggressively defies any attempt to derive common sense or narrative consistency at all. His motivations are utterly muddled. First, Apollo arrives at Rocky’s mansion to dine with the family and Paulie’s robot, whereupon he reveals his plan to fight the drugged up super soldier athlete from Soviet Russia. Adrian embarks on her (at this point) completely worn out and tired role in Rocky films where she says things that make perfect sense but in a wheedling tone that gets her nowhere. The men, as is the norm in this series, look at each other suggestively, flex a little, and inform the little lady that honor and getting beaten up by a homonculous sent around the world by the Soviet Union on some kind of press junket are the most important things in the world ever. When asked why he’s doing this, Apollo responds “Let’s just say it’s something that I believe in, alright?”
Alright. Let’s take this on face value. Apollo is in to wearing star-spangled trunks. He loves America. He’s the ultimate capitalist in many ways, a genuinely self-made man who took physical gifts and produced a business with himself as the chief commodity. Thing is…there was never any hint the character had any nationalist sentiment in him, at all. The entire film is based on the premise of Creed setting up an exhibition fight in Philadelphia to make money off the back of local sentiment for the city’s (and the nation’s) history. I’m not saying that Creed doesn’t love his country, but since when was he a card carrying flag waving anti-Commie True American Hero?
Now, let’s be fair for a second, and decide that I’m being way too harsh. Let’s face it, I’m reading a lot into three movies, one of which was essentially a vehicle for Mr. T. Creed is nationalistic. Suddenly. Okay, whatever. Why then, after the dinner at which he more or less reminds Adrian that the men are talking, does he sit down with Rocky to watch old video and reminisce about being in the spotlight? This actually makes sense!! This is the perfect motivation for Creed to be in the fight. He lives for attention, he lives to be in the public eye.* As he sits with Rocky watching the videos of their two classic fights, he yearns to be that man again, that hero. Despite the clear doping going on in the Soviet camp, Apollo feels strongly that he can win. It’s an exhibition, the man is an amateur; Apollo recognizes he’s not who he was, but he thinks he has enough left in the tank and the particular style he’ll need to take this guy out.
*And of course, he dies in the public eye. I’d like to give credit to Stallone for this but I’m not convinced there’s anything particularly intellectually rigorous going on here.
This one scene is hardly a cinematic masterpiece but it makes sense. It’s one of only two moments in the film that Apollo acts in a way that is consistent with his character through the series to date, the other being his magnificent entrance to the ring whilst being serenaded by James Brown. However, from that point until his death, he goes back to mindless nationalistic Apollo Creed. When he’s not being macho Creed. His demand that Rocky not throw in the towel makes no sense, Rocky deciding not to making even less sense. The whole thing is a mess. We end up with a shot clearly intended to be iconographic. The problem is that when the intent is so starkly visible, it rather ruins the effect.
I’m annoyed about Apollo Creed’s death. Not on a daily basis or anything, but whenever I see the film I’m reminded of how they completely wasted the series’ best character. Rocky III, while incredibly goofy, gave Creed something new to do that was consistent with the character’s behaviour in the first two films and developed a genuine relationship between he and Rocky. In Rocky IV, Apollo appears here and there in between numerous montages, cites (at least!) two completely different motivations that could be considered complementary if you squint just right. Not to mention the fact that his death is a complete disruption to any kind of interesting narrative because he should never have lost to the Russian at all, let alone be beaten to death. APOLLO CREED IS A BETTER FIGHTER THAN ROCKY. That’s for another blog post however.